Sunday, 24 May 2009

The Delicious Season

The British love summer. No matter what the weather, you will find us outside enjoying all the highlights of the season – and all the delicious food and drink that goes with them.

Depending on who you are and what part of England you are from, the season takes on a different shape. To be fair, most of the events of the iconic “Season” do take place in London, but summer anywhere in England is a festival of outdoor events – from performances of Shakespeare in the gardens of stately homes to garden parties and outdoor concerts. Many of these events involve sitting on the grass and sharing a picnic. This is somewhat ironic as traditionally British summers can rather disappointing – but being British we carry on regardless, opening up our brollies (umbrellas) and continuing to enjoy both the food and the entertainment.

There are many different foods and drinks traditionally associated with summer in England – and often with particular summer events. Strawberries and cream are almost as much a part of Wimbledon as the tennis, and champagne and Ladies’ Day at Ascot are forever intertwined. Tea on the lawn anywhere is a great summer treat – and by tea I mean proper afternoon tea with cakes, and scones with jam and cream. From the very start of the events of the summer season, which many would even argue starts with the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race in April, delicious food and drink sit alongside tradition all throughout our green and pleasant land.

Champagne is a huge part of the summer experience, as is another traditional British drink, Pimms. Pimms is an alcoholic spirit that we mix with lemonade (in England lemonade is actually a fizzy drink more akin to Sprite or 7-Up than to lemonade made with lemons). The resulting drinks are then garnished with fruit and slices of cucumber. Whether you go to the iconic Chelsea Flower Show, Ascot or to Wimbledon, there are always champagne bars and Pimms bars ready to welcome you. In fact, it could definitely be said that champagne and Pimms are to summer events in England what ice-cold beer is to baseball in North America.

The Tennis Championships at Wimbledon are a huge part of the British summer. Attending Wimbledon is a bit of an accomplishment in itself as tickets are allocated by ballot. You have to apply for months in advance, and although entering a competition just to get the opportunity to pay for a very expensive ticket might seem a bit odd, it is definitely worth the trouble to see some fabulous tennis and to enjoy an afternoon of sitting in the sunshine (please God). If you are lucky enough to attend, it is definitely part of the experience to eat strawberries and cream. Of course, they are extortionately priced strawberries and the serving is not generous, but it is something you really need to do to fully immerse yourself in the Wimbledon experience. In fact, if you tell a true Brit you have been to Wimbledon, the first question out of their mouth is unlikely to be how the tennis was – and much more likely to be whether you enjoyed the strawberries and cream there!

As I mentioned before, ironically for a country that is notorious for cool, wet summers, we British are brilliant at picnics. Whether we pack our own or buy one ready made up, picnics are a part of most summer events. Pages and pages of magazines in the UK are dedicated to picnics this time of year, and recipes abound for new and different sandwiches, terrines, salads and desserts. Grocery stores stock lots of picnic food, from tiny meat pies and seafood tarts to salads. If, however, you have cash to spare, you can order a picnic from Fortnum and Mason in London. They prepare bespoke gourmet picnics for collection from their London store. Other famous stores and restaurants offer a similar service. Packaged in glorious wicker hampers and containing everything from vintage champagne to smoked salmon and caviar, these picnics are a far cry from the sandwiches and chips we enjoyed on picnics as children.

As you can imagine from the exotic contents of some picnic baskets, not all picnics are a casual affair. At Royal Ascot, the iconic week long horse race meeting held in June, there is an area specifically designated for people to eat picnics they have brought, and another where you can collect prepared gourmet picnics ordered in advance. Last year on Ladies’ Day at Ascot, I enjoyed a three-course picnic with champagne – sitting at a picnic table wearing a designer dress and hat! It was a meal that would not have been out of place served at a five star restaurant, although of course all the dishes were chilled. We began with asparagus served in vinaigrette, followed by a seafood terrine and tiny seafood tarts. Dessert was a glorious raspberry concoction I have still not managed to duplicate. Similarly, one of the picnics I enjoyed most was a black tie picnic about fifteen years ago at Chartwell, the former home of Sir Winston Churchill, when we ate out under the stars, drank champagne and danced on the lawn to the sounds of a Big Band.

All is not lost, however, if you do not fancy a picnic. Most of the summer events and festivals also have temporary locations of gourmet restaurants, or meals prepared by chefs available on site. The Chelsea Flower Show offers two excellent restaurants; there are also restaurants at Henley (the music and arts festival), and at Wimbledon where you can enjoy a proper three-course meal with fine wines.

I believe that summer is the most delicious season of all to visit this wonderful country. There are a huge number of events to attend and whatever your choice you are sure to be well entertained. Long weekend afternoons spent enjoying strawberries and cream on the lawn drift into lazy evenings picnicking in the garden of a stately home or in a park, listening to a concert or watching a play. It’s terribly civilised, and totally scrumptious!

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